modular architecture enabling the experimental study and construction of landscape-scale ecosystems

Being able to see Earth as a planet in the void of Space birthed the conception and practice of ecology still with us today: one captured by the 1972 Blue Marble photograph and dominated by Space-based remote sensing and modeling. Yet this reliance on observation and modeling presents a major hurdle for the project of Space settlement, one which requires understanding ecosystems well enough to successfully reproduce them outside of their natural occurrence. For complex systems like ecological networks, experimental methods are needed in conjunction with observations and modeling.

ECOTOPE is a modular architecture designed to enable the experimental study of landscape-scale ecology and expand it into Space. Researchers will treat individual modules – each hosting a biological community – as building blocks of larger, more complex landscapes. These “mosaics” permit physical exchanges such as the passage of chemicals and colonizing organisms (energy) between modules; connections that operate like corridors found in natural ecological landscapes. Connectivity will be determined with the aid of genetic algorithms: by changing the fitness functions driving these algorithms, researchers can select for various functional traits including ecosystem services (e.g. life-support, agriculture), species and community conservation, resilience to changing conditions (e.g. climate change), or purely academic pursuits.

The module size is derived from the standard shipping container so that it can leverage the Global Intermodal Freight Transport System (GIFTS) – an infrastructure providing total and affordable access to the planet’s biological communities. ECOTOPE will amend rockets to the list of existing transport modes (e.g. trains, boats, trucks, planes) to expand a planetary infrastructure into an orbital one and in doing so exploit modularity to study ecological dynamics.

ECOTOPE is based on hermetically sealed modules, each in theory a “closed ecological system”. But whereas small-volume closed ecological systems suffer from decline due to reduced complexity (Warner & Chesson, 1985), ECOTOPE overcomes this limitation by enabling complex landscape construction via its modular design. In landscape and spatial ecology, the termecotope refers to the smallest spatial unit or component of an ecological landscape. Ecotopes are considered relatively homogeneous within themselves but can form heterogeneous and complex landscapes when connected (Ellis, 2008), producing emergent behavior such as gene flow, population dynamics, seed dispersal, storage effects, and pathogen virulence (McRae et al, 2008). ECOTOPE would allow researchers to upscale modern ecological experiments so that these large-scale phenomena can be studied for the first time under controlled conditions.

ECOTOPE will offer the first studies of ecosystems and heterogeneous landscapes unrestricted by scale or geographical origin and Space access to our home biosphere, on which Space settlement will remain dependent for decades to come. In contrast to projects like Biosphere 2 (or UAE’s recently proposed Mars City) that staged holistic ecological research in an idealized mono-volume replica of Earth, ECOTOPE leverages existing infrastructure to provide the means to study and select functional ecosystem traits through an evolvable network of smaller architectures.

Project team:

Jeffrey Montes (PI/PD)
Nicholas Palermo (Co-I)

Consultants and Friends of ECOTOPE:

Aaron Mill, PhD (Consultant)
Casey Handmer, PhD (Collaborator)
Jeffrey Nosanov (Collaborator)
Javier Roa Vicens, PhD (NASA/JPL)
Kevin Kempton (NASA Langley)
Gabriel Axel (Adviser)

Special Thanks:

Angel Otero (NASA HQ)
Raymond Wheeler (NASA KSC)
Hayden Burgoyne (Analytical Space Inc.)


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